Closed Off

by Sam Buntz

“You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy:
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.” –Wallace Stevens, “Of Mere Being”

Psychologically, there are few things more damaging than the belief that one is living in a closed system. The notion that discursive thought can arrive at all possible answers—and that the universe is a system in which all possible questions can be resolved—is not only arrogant but, in a fundamental way, unscientific and irrational. For a specific example of this wrongheadedness in action, we can consider the search for an equation that can explain the entirety of existence—a “Theory of Everything.” Of course, most scientists engaged in the quest for this theory don’t consider why there should be an equation that describes all of reality, in the first place—for some reason, in their understanding, reality isn’t comprised of heterogeneous fragments, but forms an ideal whole: the four fundamental forces of nature need to resolve into one force, and the masses of all particles need to receive their values from one specific particle, and so on. I understand why I believe that reality forms a whole, or why a Roman Catholic believes this to be the case—but I have no idea why theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking or Lawrence Krauss believe this to be the case. And I have never heard them explain themselves in a coherent way.

The idea that all things must, in some fashion, be unified or have a single purpose behind them comes from the imagination, from an intuitive sense, from faith, from strange inner suggestions about the shape the cosmos should take—it does not come from pure logic or reason. To suggest that it does is, in a way, highly unreasonable: pure logic doesn’t determine what we look for, but is only a method of pursuit. The ground of our first principles remains occult—and I italicize that word in order to suggest all of its meanings.

Within a closed system, completely defined by one equation, expectations never shatter. The world is pictured as clockwork—clockwork we haven’t studied yet, and clockwork we have. Minds reduce to physical patterns, immense chemical billiard games—the experts just need to figure out the angles and trajectories. Meanwhile, we live in rigid structures, rigidly defined. We are like the mouse in Kafka’s parable, complaining that its passage through a maze continues to narrow day-by-day—until a cat tells the mouse that it only needs to change its direction… before gobbling it up.

It is interesting that societies officially predicated on rationalism—societies, which made a dogma out of the belief that we were living within a solved system, determined by a final equation—devolved into madness and the starkest irrationality. They ended up replacing the transcendent mystery of the cosmos—a mystery that beckons humanity to seek for its solution, even as it confounds reason’s attempts to do so—with an image of the mundane human ego, projected and grotesquely enlarged on a million propaganda posters and flickering screens: Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un and all the other classic instances of ultra-secular personality cultism.

Somehow, in seeking to magnify the imperatives of the human ego, we narrow the world—and can continue narrowing it indefinitely. By refusing to ground the human spirit in a transcendent reality—one above yet intersecting with space and time—these ostensibly “rational” and scientifically minded regimes managed to constrict that spirit virtually to a point. While attempting to celebrate the human spirit by projecting it into the form of one human leader and the ego of that leader, they denied it and crushed it. They created a gross parody of religion, mirroring the worst forms of fanaticism faultlessly. It’s fair to say that overtly non-secular and theocratic regimes—like that of Iran—actually do the same thing: they substitute the minds of power-hungry, ego-driven clerics for the transcendent or for the God to whom they supposedly appeal. Without imagination, without openness to possibilities yet unrealized, reason becomes a noose: it can only tighten, hanging its most devout votaries.

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